Over the past two years, since the onset of Covid-19, more people have been moving to the country on a permanent basis, or developing seasonal homes to escape the crowds and connect with nature. However, with this increased number of visitors and residents comes an increased amount of disturbance, invasive species and habitat destruction. Since the onset of this trend, for instance, moose have been seen on roadways in near-settlement areas where they previously would not venture, and this is likely because these very shy beings are being displaced from the forests and associated wetlands where they find refuge. This is concerning because moose populations are already declining in Ontario.
As the last large expanse of natural landscape in Southern Ontario the Land Between bioregion provides a refuge for many breeding populations of birds, a final stronghold for reptiles who remove pests and pathogens from our world, and also for common species that are in decline such as moose, bear, (in some areas), beaver and river otters. The region also supports 62 species that are listed as “at risk”, meaning that if declines are not reversed they may reach extinction.
As climate change continues to progress, the Land Between will become an increasingly important haven, as it has been identified as being able to support high levels of biodiversity. This in turn supports the migration many of organisms and the continuation of ecosystem services which can help mitigate climate change impacts on species. This region is also one of 15 places in Canada that has been nominated by community members as a significant landscape that is essential to our future wellbeing and worthy of increased protection and conservation actions under Environment Canada and Climate Change’s Community Nominated Priority Places Program. Part of the reason the region can support the welfare of humans and our non-human kin is because it is relatively intact compared to any landscapes to the south- it is the last wilderness available to wildlife in southern Ontario.
Despite the boon of this reserve, this past year, we at the Land Between charity, have received many emails and phone calls (almost every week in the summer) from people who are concerned about development proposals in their watersheds or their communities within the Land Between. The development they are concerned about is often taking place in very ecologically rich, but sensitive areas of wetlands and shorelands, or in old growth hemlock forests that are headwaters for many streams and lakes.
The issue is that the main protections for these areas lie within municipalities’ official plans and bylaws, which are informed by data, mapping and then the Provincial Policy Statements. Often, even though these habitats are becoming scarce or harbour Species at Risk, they are not recognized as significant and/or are not encompassed in mapping models by Council (who has full discretion for the future of these places). Beyond these municipal levers, there are surprisingly few protections in place.
As these types of development proposals are becoming more common in the last natural areas in Southern Ontario, the need for informed decisions at every scale become even more important. Landscape modelling using recent data, thorough reviews by councils, and enforcement of existing bylaws are essential if we are to maintain this final wilderness landscape and the hope for a healthy future that it harbours.
Amongst the pressures and changes, there are a few good examples of emerging leadership across municipalities:
1. The District of Muskoka has increased levels of enforcement, enforcement budgets and have held developers accountable while also providing great support from the social sector and agencies that provide assessments and reviews of applications.
2. Lake of Bays has a system in place that streamlines and combines applications for development, minor variances, and site plans in one go. Naturalization plans are part of these applications and in order for approvals to be granted, development has to result in a net gain for nature.
3. Rideau Lakes requires that any development proposal includes a 30m natural vegetation buffer that will be planted, if not existing, at the shore.
Although there are advances in stewardship and care, there remains many challenges across many areas. For instance, municipalities would benefit from supporting lake/water quality assessments, and watershed scale habitat models because they would help inform decisions and policies. However, without the support of Conservation Authorities that are absent in many headwaters across the Land Between, municipalities may make decisions in a black box without full knowledge of the larger implications.
To fill some of this need, we at the Land Between charity are working to provide help and support! Our new Blue Lakes program will be ready to launch next spring and has gathered and analyzed data across most major lakes in the region to understand trends, priorities and ecological states (visit www.bluelakes.ca to learn more). However, we cannot keep up with the volume of demands for information by the public and are unable to share some of this information because it is deemed “sensitive” under current laws.
More than ever, the role of community members is essential to finding a balance. Therefore, private individuals need to be more involved in the review process. Landowners and all community members can access the skills and knowledge to speak to councils by sharing experiences with others, or by reaching out to us or other conservation groups. As community members, regardless of data, we need to engage our councilors, and become involved in these decisions by learning about and sharing our perspectives regarding the relative benefits and values of development versus conservation choices. We can help municipalities to investigate and assess implications of decisions across different scales of time and space. These decisions need to explore all aspects of immediate habitat, watersheds, entire landscape functions and then in terms of immediate versus future impacts/benefits looking as far as seven generations from now. We don’t need to be experts, we simply must speak up about what we observe and what we desire for our communities and future generations.
All development proposals have a period where the public is invited to comment. If you are concerned, keep abreast of the local news by contacting your municipality, your local ward council member whose duty it is to represent your concerns, and talk to your neighbours, peers, and local conservation groups (like us)! Developers also want to have their proposals supported by constituents, and therefore, they are often open to discussions as well. There are always areas for compromise, new innovative solutions, greater care for the natural world…and of course, sometimes there are limits that need to prevail.
Beyond planning and development proposal input, each of us can do a small part that results in a cumulative benefit for the whole; reducing night lighting or pesticides (natural or chemical) that harm songbirds and other wildlife is an easy fix! Also, planting native garden beds and connecting them to natural habitats allows animals and pollinators to move and flourish. Even simply learning about this special region, so that you can become an expert in caring for the place you call home, is powerful!
We offer many programs/resources for landowners to enhance/conserve the biodiversity on their properties and work with many municipalities to restore and improve landscapes as well! For more information about how YOU can live more sustainably in the Land Between please check out our Living in the Country: A How-To Series!